Pearl Harbor is one of the turning points in American history. Its effects are still with us: a system of alliances that replaced isolationism, a Defense Department including all the military services, the intelligence establishment, the recurrent fear that the Soviet Union will resort to surprise attack.
The enormity of the event led to no fewer than seven administrative investigations and to the most extensive congressional inquiry ever undertaken. The record of the congressional hearings, published in 1946, incorporated the testimony and exhibits of the previous investigations, making its thirty-nine volumes an unparalleled mine of information for writers who have produced scores of books and articles on the attack. So minutely did these investigations scrutinize what happened before Pearl Harbor that we can, for example, read the comment of a Navy yeoman when he pulled the wiretaps from the Japanese consulate in Hawaii: “At 4 PM Honolulu time in the 1941st year of Our Lord, December 2 inst., I bade my adieu to you my friend of 22 months standing. Darn if I won’t miss you! Requiescat in Peace.”
These investigations sought to determine how the United States was—in a favorite phrase of the time—“caught napping” at Pearl Harbor, where 2,403 US lives were lost and much of the Pacific Fleet destroyed. The question was sharpened by the fact that the United States had earlier solved the Japanese diplomatic codes and ciphers and thus had an extraordinary source of intelligence about Japan.
Controversy surrounded the matter almost from the start. Two schools of thought arose—if they had not already existed on the basis of political and perhaps philosophical preconceptions. One, which we can call the orthodox school, basically holds at fault the Army and Navy commanders at Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant General Walter C. Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel. They were sent there in the face of the rising tension with Japan with one job to do—protect the fleet—and they failed. Most historians side with this school. Among them are the Pulitzer Prize-winning Samuel Eliot Morison, author of the fifteen-volume semiofficial history of the US Navy in World War II, and Roberta Wohlstetter, whose Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision first applied the concepts of information theory to the questions of intelligence at Pearl Harbor.1 The other, revisionist, school blames President Franklin D. Roosevelt, his Cabinet members, and top military advisers in Washington for the debacle at Pearl Harbor. Its most famous adherent is the late Charles A. Beard, a former president of the American Historical Association and author of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913).2
Each of the books under review falls into one of these two classes. Gordon W. Prange’s At Dawn We Slept belongs to the orthodox school, John Toland’s Infamy to the revisionist. Prange’s book is superior, both as history and as narrative. A historian at the University of Maryland, Prange died in May 1980. He spent thirty-seven years studying Pearl Harbor, using his position as chief of the historical section in Japan during the American occupation to interview practically every surviving Japanese officer who participated in the attack. He seems also to have interviewed virtually every surviving American involved in the attack, and to have examined collections of papers, unpublished manuscripts, and oral histories as well as almost every book and article published on the subject. His manuscript grew to 3,500 pages—the film Tora! Tora! Tora! was based on it—and was reduced to a long book by two of his former students.
The result is not only a comprehensive account of both the American and the Japanese sides of the story, but a fascinating collection of anecdotes, portraits, and analyses dealing with the planning, commission, and aftermath of the attack. A Japanese pilot, impressed by the spectacle of waterspouts of torpedoes striking the West Virginia, orders his observer to photograph the scene. The man misinterprets the order and blazes away with his machine gun, shredding the plane’s own antenna. When a Navy officer’s wife sees the battleship Oklahoma turn over in Pearl Harbor, she thinks at first only of the great ships that are dying before her eyes, and only later remembers that men are dying in them. After the Arizona is blown up, a strange creature, dripping with oil, is seen climbing aboard the damaged Vestal nearby; this proves to be the captain of the Vestal, who has been hurled into the water; he countermands his deck officer’s order to abandon ship and gets his crew back to their stations.
John Toland’s book is of a different kind altogether. It is a narrative not of the attack but of the investigations, ending with his own “investigation” and its discoveries. It defends Kimmel and Short and so marks a change in Toland’s views. In The Rising Sun (1970), for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, Toland wrote of the causes of the Pearl Harbor disaster that “the American military leaders…could not imagine that the Japanese would be ‘stupid enough’ to attack Pearl Harbor.” “In a deeper sense,” he added, “every American would have to accept a share of the blame.” In Infamy, he concludes: “The comedy of errors on the sixth and seventh [of December 1941] appears incredible. It only makes sense if it was a charade, and Roosevelt and the inner circle had known about the attack.” He charges that they did not warn the commanders in the field because, having failed to get the United States into the war any other way, they decided that only an attack on American troops and installations would achieve this result. Afterward, Kimmel and Short were made the scapegoats and a “massive cover-up” concealed the entire plot.
In seeking to prove this charge, Toland emphasizes evidence that exculpates the commanders in Hawaii and condemns Roosevelt and his advisers. In some cases he is right to do so. General Short received on November 27 a message from the Army chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, warning that “hostile action [with Japan] possible at any moment” and ordering Short to “report measures taken.” Short replied only that “department alerted to prevent sabotage.” But Marshall failed to tell him that further precautions were needed. Similarly, Admiral Kimmel was not sent American intercepts of Japanese diplomatic messages. This in itself was not wrong, because the messages would not have helped him and the danger of the US losing a vital source of information would have been increased. But it was wrong that Kimmel was not told in September that the Japanese had divided up Pearl Harbor into five areas in order to report more precisely on the locations and movements of US warships.
In most cases, however, Toland’s arguments are unfair. He quotes a statement by an American colonel who heard an Australian official say:
About 72 hours before Pearl Harbor, I received a flash warning from my Naval Intelligence that a Japanese Task Force was at sea and Australia should prepare for an attack; 24 hours later this was further confirmed with a later opinion of Intelligence that the Task Force was apparently not aimed at Australian waters and perhaps was directed against some American possessions.
These were, in all probability, the Philippines, since everyone knew about a task force heading into the South China Sea. But Toland, not mentioning this possibility, creates the impression that the American possessions were the Hawaiian Islands.
Toland refers to “the decoded Japanese message indicating a surprise move was imminent.” But no Japanese agency ever radioed any message mentioning an attack on Pearl Harbor by name—all such messages were carried by hand and there is no evidence that any of them became known to the US. Toland talks of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s “hatred and fear of Japan,” without noting—as he had in The Rising Sun—that Stimson urged during the war that the cultural shrine of Kyoto be spared from bombing. He quotes with apparent approval an entirely unsubstantiated remark that “if an officer wanted to be condemned forever it was only necessary for him to have guessed correctly about Pearl Harbor.” One could cite many other instances of such partiality in evidence. But Toland also offers some new information based on his own research into matters not covered by the official investigations.
Though this information is apparently sensational, most of it falls apart upon close examination. His first major find is the interview of a US naval radioman who claims to have heard a Japanese message that, in Toland’s view, “meant war with America.” The message was an open code that Tokyo set up in a secret circular of November 19 to Japan’s diplomatic missions:
In case of emergency (danger of cutting off our diplomatic relations), and the cutting off of international communications, the following warning will be added in the middle of the daily Japanese language short wave news broadcast:
(1) In case of Japan-US relations in danger: “East wind rain.”
(2) Japan-USSR relations: “North wind cloudy.”
(3) Japan-British relations: “West wind clear.”
This signal will be given in the middle and at the end as a weather forecast and each sentence will be repeated twice.
When the US Navy solved this message on November 28, the Navy and Army intelligence services made frenzied efforts to intercept any broadcast putting it into effect. Nearly all witnesses before the investigating bodies asserted that no such broadcast was ever heard. None was found in the files and Japanese sources said none had been broadcast. But two or three witnesses insisted that a winds code had been heard and that the intercept had been removed from the files as part of a cover-up. Captain Laurence F. Safford, who had built up the Navy’s code-making and code-breaking organization and headed it at the time of Pearl Harbor, stuck by his story to this effect, despite almost brutal cross-examination.
The naval radioman whose interview Toland discovered contended that he had actually heard the winds code used. Ralph T. Briggs, an expert in Japanese Morse code, said that before dawn one morning during the week before Pearl Harbor, while on duty at the Navy’s monitor post at Cheltenham, Maryland, he—Toland writes—“picked up on schedule the routine Japanese Navy weather broadcast from Tokyo and he began copying down in Japanese telegraphic code: Higashi no kaze ame: ‘East wind, rain.’ ” He at once sent this by wire to Washington.
Two facts invalidate Briggs’s recollection. One is that the phrase was to be broadcast not in a Navy weather report but in a general newscast. The other is that the message was to be transmitted not by Morse code but by voice. So whatever Briggs heard, it was not a true winds code message.
Safford’s and Briggs’s confusion probably arose because during the ten days that the American services were searching frantically for weather reports using the winds code, several weather reports were heard that almost but did not quite fit this pattern—one was “north wind clear, may become slightly cloudy,” which was not, as required, repeated twice. The two men may have misremembered one of these as a true message. But even if a true winds code message had been broadcast, what would it have added to what American policy makers already knew? It would have merely confirmed the indications already given by intercepts ordering Japanese diplomats to burn codes. The suggestion that it would have foretold the Pearl Harbor attack is ridiculous.
Another of Toland’s discoveries deals with radio signals that he says were heard by two Americans who separately located them as coming from northwest of Hawaii. One of them, at least, located the signals as coming from a Japanese strike force heading toward Honolulu. Both passed their information to intelligence authorities.
One of the listeners was a radioman aboard the passenger ship Lurline. He noted in his journal on December 1 that:
The Japs are blasting away on the lower Marine Radio frequency—it is all in the Japanese code, and continues for several hours…. The main body of signals came from a Northwest by West area, which from our second night from Los Angeles bound for Honolulu—would be North and West of Honolulu.
He reported this to naval intelligence in Hawaii when the Lurline docked.
The other source was an electronics expert in the San Francisco naval district’s office, which, Toland says, “had recently been ordered to relocate the missing Japanese carrier force” that naval radio intelligence had lost sight of. This young seaman said he was able to plot the geographic bearings of “queer signals” that four wire services had reported hearing, as well as other signals reported by commercial vessels in the Pacific. He tracked them over several nights to 400 miles north-north-west of Oahu and reported them as the missing carriers to his superior, whose own superior was said to have the ear of Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s closest aide. Neither this nor the Lurline’s reports were forwarded to higher authority, Toland says, though both had discovered the Japanese strike force.
This theory founders on the fact that the Japanese force never transmitted any messages by radio, even on low-power ship-to-ship channels, for fear of disclosing its presence. All Japanese sources agree that ships communicated with one another exclusively by flag or blinker.
What, then, were these men hearing? Probably just the same naval transmissions around Japan that everyone else was hearing. Shipboard direction finding was then notoriously unreliable, with a likely error of easily 10 to 20 degrees in a bearing. Thus what the men were hearing could have originated in the waters around northern Japan as well as the “vacant sea” northwest of Hawaii. Moreover, the entire US Navy radio intelligence establishment in the Pacific, whose intercept posts curved from the Aleutians through Hawaii, Midway, Samoa, and Guam to the Philippines, was straining to find the carriers. It is less probable that the Navy’s experienced monitors missed them than that the two men mistook whatever they heard for the transmissions of warships heading for Hawaii.
A third Toland discovery consists of a diary of the Dutch naval attaché in Washington. In it, the attaché, Captain Johan E.M. Ranneft, noted on December 2 that US naval intelligence officers pointed out on a map “the position of two Japanese carriers. They left Japan on easterly course.” This might have been any of the carriers accompanying the various forces heading south, not necessarily ones bound for Pearl Harbor. Then, on December 6, at another meeting in the Office of Naval Intelligence, Ranneft asked about the two carriers. “Someone put a finger on the wall chart four hundred miles or so north of Honolulu,” Toland writes, apparently on the basis of an interview with Ranneft. But the diary itself says nothing about distance and contradicts the direction north, because in describing the location of the carriers it uses the abbreviation “beW.,” which probably stands for bewestern—Dutch for “Westerly of.”3 So the documentary evidence cuts Toland’s own ground from under him.
Toland’s fourth find consists of a report of an intercept by Netherlands East Indies army intelligence of a Japanese message. It set up the winds code and, according to Toland, mentioned the possibility of an attack on Hawaii. The Dutch brought it to an American military observer, who cabled it to the War Department, and to the American consul, who cabled it to State. The consul’s cablegram, which is published in Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, 1941, says nothing about Hawaii; listed are only “Thailand or Malaya and Dutch Indies.”4 Toland claims that the message to the War Department “arrived without the paragraph warning of the Pearl Harbor attack. Somehow in transmission this vital information was deleted.” Far more likely is that it was never sent and that the observer, apparently one of Toland’s sources, is misremembering. Moreover, neither the Dutch chief cryptanalyst, J.A. Verkuyl (not Verkuhl, as Toland gives it), whom I interviewed in 1962, nor his codebreaker in Japanese, who wrote me in detail about his work, mentioned knowing in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack.
Toland’s discoveries thus fail to sustain his charge that Roosevelt invited the Pearl Harbor attack and refused to tell the commanders in Hawaii about it. He also ignores facts that undermine that charge. Radar operators in Hawaii spotted the oncoming flight of Japanese planes. They were told by their lieutenant not to worry about it. But suppose he had passed the news on, as he well might have done. The consequent warning would have wrecked Roosevelt’s alleged plot to let the Japanese strike with surprise to sink the fleet and bring an enraged America into the war. The same point may be made about the sightings by American patrol vessels of Japanese midget submarines outside Pearl Harbor. Mishaps and delays kept the reports from reaching Kimmel until after the attack. If they had gotten to him earlier, he might have alerted the fleet. Toland, like other revisionists, suppresses these episodes because they undermine his theory.
Even on its face, however, the revisionist theory makes no sense. In the first place, if Roosevelt wanted to bring us into war, why would he cripple his forces in doing it? People who pick fights do not tie their hands behind their backs when the punching starts; presidents who start wars presumably want to win them. The destruction of the fleet would hardly advance that aim. Had he warned the fleet, Roosevelt could have unified the nation just as well, for what angered Americans was the fact that the Japanese attacked; the losses merely intensified their fury.
In the second place, Roosevelt viewed Germany, not Japan, as the chief threat to America. This was the assumption of the nation’s basic war plan, Rainbow 5. War with Japan would not necessarily mean war with Germany. In fact, Roosevelt refused to ask Congress to declare war on Germany after Pearl Harbor. That declaration came only after Hitler, on December 11, for reasons still not entirely clear, and after months of resisting pressures to do so, had the Reichstag declare war on the United States. Hitler’s actions can hardly be said to have been controlled by Roosevelt, and so one cannot maintain that Pearl Harbor gave Roosevelt the war he wanted.
The revisionist thesis has wider implications than the charges that Roosevelt concealed information about the attack. “The greater tragedy is that the war with Japan is one that need never have been fought,” writes Toland. This is not persuasive historically. The seeds of the Pacific War were sown in the decade from 1894 to 1905, when Japan became dominant in the western Pacific and the US acquired the Philippines, and sprouted in 1931, when the militarists seized control of Japan. The clash might have been delayed by shifts in negotiating tactics during 1941—for example, if the US had not imposed an oil embargo, as it did after the Japanese began to occupy bases in southern Indochina in July. But Japan, driven in part by the need for resources and markets, in part by pride and a sense of destiny, was too aggressive; and the United States, protective of its markets and the Philippines, and hostile to fascism in Japan as in Germany, was too resistant for a conflict to be long postponed. A Japanese-American war might not have started with a sneak attack at Pearl harbor, but it was sure to come.
Related to the view that war could have been avoided is the belief held by some—it is not clear whether Toland is among them—that the United States should have fought the Soviet Union instead of Japan. Of all the revisionist theories, this is the most unhistorical. For over what, in 1939 or 1941, could a clash have come? The Soviet Union was neither a world trader nor a naval power, so conflicts could hardly have arisen over markets or strategic outposts. Communist ideology was the only possible cause, and that was exceedingly unlikely to have been the cause of a war. And on whose side would Japan have been? Its hostilities or rivalries with the US and the Soviet Union precluded it allying itself with either, and for them to have fought across a neutral Japan is almost inconceivable.
If, then, a war with Japan was inevitable, or almost so, why did Roosevelt not foresee the attack on Pearl Harbor? One explanation lies in the condescending racism of American leaders who arrogantly excluded the possibility that the “little yellow men” of Japan would attack the United States. A second can be found in the rationalist approach to foreign policy by American and other Western officials: they could not understand the Japanese conviction that war with America offered the only way to preserve the empire. Finally, isolationist and antimilitarist policies had cut down on US intelligence efforts during the late 1930s. These factors blinded Roosevelt—and Kimmel and Short—to the possibility of an attack. The proximate reasons for the success of the attack, aside from the military power and skill of the Japanese, lie in the failure of the commanders in Hawaii to take proper precautions, such as conducting long-range aerial reconnaissance and alerting their forces.
It has been argued that all the information needed to foretell the attack was available but that the intelligence agencies did not pick it out. Roberta Wohlstetter, for example, has written: “We failed to anticipate Pearl Harbor not for want of the relevant materials, but because of a plethora of irrelevant ones.” This view seems to me wrong. It is true that many false signals obscured the picture. For example, from August 1 to December 6, the United States deciphered twenty-three Japanese shipmovement messages dealing with the Panama Canal, fifty-nine dealing with the Philippines—and only twenty dealing with Pearl Harbor. It is also true that many intercepts clearly indicated an impending break in relations and the probability of war. Indeed, Roosevelt, when he read the intercept of the final Japanese note, said in effect that it meant war. But it is impossible in logic to leap from this general feeling to the highly specific expectation of a Sunday morning raid on the nation’s bestdefended naval base, for, it must be emphasized, not one intercept, not one shred of intelligence, ever said anything about an attack on Pearl Harbor.
The only way that enough information could have been obtained in advance to predict the attack would have been for the United States, years before, to have insinuated spies into Japanese government offices, to have flown regular high-level aerial reconnaissance of the Imperial Japanese Fleet, to have put intercept units aboard ships sailing close to Japan to pick up naval messages that a greatly expanded code-breaking unit might have cracked, to have recruited a network of marine observers to report on ship movements. The intelligence failure at Pearl Harbor was one not of analysis, but of collection.
This failure was due to long-standing financial, political, and foreign policy factors in America. Thus Harry Truman was right in the final sense when he said of Pearl Harbor what Toland said in The Rising Sun: that “the country was as much to blame as any individual.” Prange is right when he assigns much of the immediate blame to the commanders on the scene: “Had US forces discovered and beaten off Nagumo’s task force or made the attackers suffer unacceptable losses over the target, Kimmel and Short would have received the credit. By the same token, they cannot escape the onus of surprise and defeat.”
There was no plot, no cover-up. Those who charge that documents were abstracted from the files, that reports were suppressed, that actions were prevented should examine the orderliness and completeness of their own papers and consider how rapidly and fully they perform every little thing they should do. At the heart of the Pearl Harbor tragedy lies not conspiracy, but fallibility.
Though Prange’s and Toland’s books are different in treatment and outlook, both err in their historical judgments. Toland in effect calls Roosevelt a murderer and a war criminal, which he was not. Prange calls Pearl Harbor “the turning point of the world struggle.” It was not that: Hitler’s invasion of Russia while still fighting England was the true turning point, for it trapped him in a two-front war against a virtually unconquerable colossus on the one side and an unsinkable launching base on the other. But for Americans Pearl Harbor was critical. Its image of exploding ships and roiling black smoke has seared itself into our memory and controls us today from the past.
May 27, 1982
Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1947-1960); Wohlstetter’s book was published by Stanford University Press, 1962. ↩
Beard’s view on Pearl Harbor is summarized in his President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: A Study in Appearances and Realities (1948; reprinted by Shoe String Press, 1968). ↩
I am indebted to Robert Haslach, who is making a study of Dutch intelligence in World War II, for this translation. ↩
Volume 4, p. 713. ↩